A ‘Queer Cocktail’ of a Play, ‘Merry Me’ Nods to the Greeks, ‘Angels in America,’ but Doesn’t Fully Intoxicate

The latest from playwright Hansol Jung is a decidedly lighter, more whimsical affair than her ‘Wolf Play,’ one of the most moving new works I’ve seen in the past decade.

Joan Marcus
Cindy Cheung, Shaunette Renée Wilson, and David Ryan Smith in 'Merry Me.' Joan Marcus

It’s not often that I begin a review by quoting a press release, but it seems only fair both to playwright Hansol Jung and potential audience members to provide an authorized description of her latest work, so here goes: “Merry Me” is billed as “an intoxicating queer cocktail of restoration comedy and the Greeks, served with a heavy garnish of ridiculous.”

In fact, other, more contemporary influences inform this latest offering from the undeniably gifted Ms. Jung, whose previous credits include one of the most moving new works I’ve seen in the past decade, “Wolf Play,” in which a woman and her nonbinary spouse try to provide a loving home for a boy who has been abandoned by his adoptive parents.

“Merry Me” is a decidedly lighter, more whimsical affair — inspired, the program informs us, by a noted director, Leigh Silverman, proposing that Ms. Jung write a lesbian sex comedy. The central romance here is between Mrs. Sapph Memnon, discontented daughter-in-law to a certain blustering general introduced as “Aga Memnon” — though her first name obviously nods to ancient Lesbos’s most famous poet — and Lieutenant Shane Horne, a serial seductress.

Sapph and Shane are respectively played by Nicole Villamil and Esco Jouléy, who were hauntingly effective as the couple in “Wolf Play” in a pair of off-Broadway productions. Here the performers get to exhibit a playful wit, as do their fellow cast members, in roles lifted from Greek drama and other sources, including, perhaps most notably, “Angels in America.”  

Like that Tony Kushner masterwork, “Merry Me” features a resplendent winged creature who emerges flashily onstage — abetted here by Barbara Samuels’s lighting, which includes strobe effects, and Caroline Eng and Kate Marvin’s aggressive sound design — and anoints a prophet. The angel’s choice is Shane’s psychiatrist and sometime lover, one Dr. Jess O’Nope, who is tasked with killing Private Willy Memnon, Sapph’s husband and the general’s son, with an ax.

Shaunette Renée Wilson in ‘Merry Me.’ Joan Marcus

Although the general hankers for battle, this action seems to unfold neither specifically during the Trojan War nor in the period of Restoration — nor in the Reagan era, when “Angels” is set. Ms. Jung’s script blithely references “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Shonda Rhymes, Netflix, and Marvel’s “The Avengers” film franchise, among other distinctly 21st-century phenomena. And the performances feel as hip as the progressive values the playwright is espousing here, albeit satirically, and with a healthy dose of self-effacement.

A regal, mischievous Shaunette Renée Wilson, who plays the intruding angel — we eventually meet some of her colleagues, just as we do in Mr. Kushner’s opus — also helps guide us through the romp, her lively banter reminding us that Greek choruses didn’t have to deal with a fourth wall. Marinda Anderson is a vibrant if less spicy presence as Jess, who takes some persuading before setting out on her deadly mission.

“I don’t have rage, queer female or otherwise,” the shrink insists, spurring the angel to pique her indignation with a series of questions. “What do you make to a white man’s dollar?” is the first, followed by, “How many years after democracy was invented did women get to vote?”

Then comes the query that truly strikes a nerve: “In the 69 years since its existence how many female directors have been hired to direct a Shakespeare in the Park?” the angel asks. “Give me that ax,” Jess replies.

In the end, Jess has no blood on her hands, and her elusive search for “merries” — spiritual and carnal nourishment, it would seem — is finally, happily fulfilled. While the play affected me less profoundly, I found it consistently entertaining, if not quite intoxicating.

The New York Sun

© 2024 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use